The Power Builder

sitdown 19 The Power BuilderLocation: This is a horribly anxious time to be in New York real estate, especially if you’re one of the city’s biggest builders. What keeps you up at night?

Mr. Sciame: I like to say that I sleep like a baby: I sleep for two hours and I cry for two hours. Only kidding. … Any major builder in this town in 2008 is having a very good year. And we’re having a very good year.

 

How is that possible? It’s been incredibly unsteady; apartments are going unsold.

It has been, but as the builder, we are building that building, and the apartments that you’re trying to sell have been paid for … which is why my year has been good. But two years ago we started to really diversify. We saw this residential market on fire and I knew—anyone could predict—that there would be a downturn. Since the tulip bulbs in Holland, there will be this financial euphoria and then this fall. So we diversified and went into institutional work, not only museums, but Columbia University. … [And] we are making sure there are reserves put aside from the good years.

 

You’ve built the aluminum-skinned New Museum, Renzo Piano’s Morgan Library and Thom Mayne’s upcoming Cooper Union lab building—and you renovated the Guggenheim. When you walk outside, what do you see?

Just as a painter will see things very differently, because they’re thinking about painting whatever it is they’re looking at, I think that, as a builder, when I walk down the street, I can see through the street. There’s sort of an X-ray vision. What’s behind that limestone? What’s behind that curtain wall? How is that beam supported? You could really just sort of appreciate the way it comes together.

 

You also built Palazzo Chupi, Julian Schnabel’s amazing red-pink condos on West 11th, but sales-wise it’s done very poorly: His huge duplex and triplex are unsold, and Richard Gere put his place there back on the market.

Julian, he did it the way he wanted to do it, you’ll see no other building like that in the city, and you can either like it or dislike it. … And I think he’s willing to wait for the right price; he’s not in a rush to sell it.

 

The one recent, well-known building of yours that I happen to dislike is the Cooper Square Hotel, the shiny, almost sci-fi building at the Bowery. Do you take building jobs that you don’t personally approve of?

Hah! It would really have to be bad, O.K., for me to say, ‘I’m not building that building because I don’t like what it’s doing to the skyline of Manhattan,’ let me be honest with you. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder—we have people that love the Cooper Square Hotel! Look, I think I have a very good moral compass. I think I have principles. I’m not going to do something that would be socially totally unacceptable. But I wouldn’t not build a building because I don’t agree with its design, and I also wouldn’t not build a building because maybe it’s not what the preservationists want.

 

New Yorkers desperately wanted to save the marble-clad modernist ‘lollipop building’ at 2 Columbus Circle. But the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission held no public meetings, and the building was gutted and stripped. Your company did the work. Now it’s an entirely new building and widely loathed.

We were in a touchy situation on Columbus Circle. I mean, here was an Edward Durell Stone building that certain people thought should be landmarked and others didn’t. …

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it may have been better for everyone, including the LPC, had they had a hearing on it. This is only with 20/20 hindsight. … At that time, I didn’t think it was such a bad thing.

 

And yet you happen to be chairman of the nonprofit advocacy group New York Landmarks Conservancy. How could you be pro-landmarking if you’re a builder and even sometimes a developer?

When I was asked to be chairman of the conservancy, I said, ‘Do you really want a developer?’ And it’s a good question. But having been chairman for two and a half years now, I think it was not a problem at all. I’m passionate about good architecture; I’m passionate about preserving good landmarks, so it’s not hard for me to take that position.

 

Your new Cooper Union lab building, designed by Pritzker-winning Thom Mayne, will be so green that its skin will have perforated stainless steel panels that move to reduce heat or cold. Is green just a fad?

No, I think that green is here to stay, but … right now green is not cost-effective. A lot of developers are using it because they have concern for the environment. It’s also a good marketing tool, and they’ve been willing to spend a little bit more for it. … As more and more people do it, and more and more innovative ideas come, it will be good.

 

You tried to develop a radical, slim skyscraper of stacked townhouse cubes at 80 South Street, designed by the experimentalist Santiago Calatrava. It’s still not built. Have you given up?

I think we were ahead of our time. … We’re in a holding pattern. Now, if someone wants to do a conventional building, we’ll probably sell it.